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THE GREAT DICTATOR
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
Director:  Charles Chaplin
Audio:  PCM Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  125 Minutes
Release Date: 
May 24, 2011

“How many did you say were going on strike?”

“About three thousand.”

“Have them all shot.  I don’t want any of my workers dissatisfied.”

Film ****

The Great Dictator is a landmark film in many ways.  Not only was it Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie” and the last to feature his beloved Tramp, but it was a superbly timed film that showed the world what it mostly didn’t want to see about a man many blindly admired.  Chaplin’s picture was, in fact, the first indication of what that blindness would cost the world.

Charlie Chaplin had been the most popular of the silent film comedians, and at the height of his screen popularity, was the world’s most recognizable figure.  The one time acrobatic star of the stage had made the burgeoning motion picture industry his home, and his affable Tramp brought laughter and joy into millions of lives, while making him a very rich man in the process.

So popular was Chaplin that he was able to withstand the advent of sound in movies longer than anybody else in the business.  While silent stars’ careers were being washed away by the roar of synchronized audio, Chaplin continued to make his Tramp movies the way he always had.  He experimented a little with the spoken word in his final silent feature Modern Times, but apart from a silly musical number, his Tramp stayed quiet.

It was 1940, a full 13 years after The Jazz Singer proved films could talk as well as move, before Chaplin finally gave in and gave his Tramp a voice.  He assumed that when his character spoke at last, he would be finished.  But if that was the inevitable price, he at least had something important to say.

Adolph Hitler was born in the same week of the same year as Chaplin, and while the Tramp’s career was winding down, Hitler’s stage was just beginning to open up.  Seeing some of the first film clips of the Nazi dictator as carefully presented to the world, Chaplin is said to have remarked that Hitler was one of the greatest actors he’d ever seen.  But while much of the world was expressing admiration for the militant leader who had managed to pull post World War I Germany out of a hideous depression, Chaplin saw in him a much more dangerous side.

Chaplin was not Jewish, although whenever asked or accused of it, he chose never to offer a denial.  When Hitler and the Nazis were beginning to spread their vile message of anti-Semitism, Chaplin was often a target for their hatred.  The world turned a blind eye to the blossoming crisis in Europe.  But Chaplin set about to attack Hitler in the most powerful way imaginable…not with guns or armies, but with laughter.  He set out to make the Fuhrer look ridiculous.

Yet The Great Dictator isn’t all fun and games…the festering Nazi situation was far too serious to be treated with pure comedy.  Despite some brilliantly constructed jokes, pratfalls and scenarios by writer, director and double-star Chaplin, there is an underlying poignancy to the film, and plenty of stark reminders that what was brewing underneath the guise of German nationalism was something far more bleak and ugly…more so than even Chaplin realized.

In the picture, he plays two roles.  One is a Jewish barber whom we first see fighting for his country of Tomainia in the waning days of the first world war (the gags involving the “Big Bertha” gun are a riot).  He manages to save the life of a captain, but in a plane crash, loses his memory and all sense of time.

He thinks weeks have passed, but it’s been years.  When he returns to his barbershop in the ghetto, he finds a strange new world awaiting him; a world where Jews are harassed by storm troopers, where Jewish businesses are clearly marked and targeted, and where a new dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, has risen to power with a platform of hating the Jews.

Hynkel is, of course, Chaplin again, and arguably the comedian’s greatest creation.  His speeches, which are comprised entirely of mock German, are hilarious, and Chaplin never misses an opportunity to make his Great Dictator into a buffoon.  We see the absurdity of Hynkel’s palace life juxtaposed with the sweet, gentle existence of the barber as he goes about his meager existence and enters into a warm romance with a local Jewish girl, Hannah (Chaplin’s real-life spouse of the time, Goddard). 

But all is not love and laughter.  When Hynkel spews his rage against the Jews, the lovable characters of the ghetto see their worlds turned upside down.  Some escape to Osterlich, the last free country…yet when Hynkel and his army seem poised to conquer it as well, all hope seems lost.

All of this culminates in the very famous twist of fate when the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and asked to address all of his army, Osterlich, and the world via a huge radio broadcast.  It’s there that the shy barber finally finds his real voice, and it sounded an awful lot like that of Charlie Chaplin.  There can be no doubt that the barber’s final words are what Chaplin wanted the Tramp to retire saying.  Some call the speech an awkward soap box moment and a finale that preaches instead of reaches.  I always disagree.  Chaplin wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t mince words.  His message is not to the characters in the film, but to the people of the world, and it’s a good one.  In fact, I don’t think anything I’ve heard in the movies is as beautifully hopeful as his final words to his love across the radio waves.

“Look up, Hannah,” he says.  “The clouds are lifting…the sun is breaking through…we are coming out of the darkness into the light…”  The words will bring tears to your eyes.  And Charlie Chaplin solidified himself not only as an indelible movie star, but as one of the century’s greatest artists as well.  For after spending decades tickling our funny bones without ever speaking a word, he broke his silence and touched our hearts, and appealed to the better angels of our natures as well.

Video ****

I thought the original CBS/FOX releases of these Chaplin titles were in impressive shape, but these Warner re-issues still manage to show improvement.  This is a clean, pristine presentation with deep darks and pure whites…and the detail is incredible.  You can just about see individual grains of dirt on the battlefield, or the textures of Der Phooey’s floors, and much more.  Images are sharp and beautiful.  Only a minor and extremely acceptable amount of aging effects are present…a small spot there, a tiny scratch there…nothing distracting.  In fact, I can’t in good conscious even dock points for them.  Absolutely incredible!

Audio ****

You want to talk about an impressive 5.1 remix?  The opening moments of The Great Dictator will have you thinking you’re in the middle of Full Metal Jacket!  Chaplin’s recreation of WWI comes alive with powerful signals to the subwoofer and gunfire and explosions all around.  Planes, crowds, and action sequences are boldly mixed in all directions…I dare say no other film from the 40s sounds likes this on DVD.  Chaplin’s score is full and rich with a clean, dynamic orchestration.  For most remixed mono films, there is a distinct problem of spoken words sounding either too thin compared to the rest of the audio or too quiet and swallowed up.  None of those problems exist here; this is one of the most expertly fleshed out mixes of a single track audio offering I’ve ever heard.  For purists, the original mono track is included, but give the remixed one a try…it’s a treat!

Features ****

This terrific Criterion release begins with a new audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran.  It's a very welcome listen.  The excellent documentary by silent film expert Kevin Brownlow called The Tramp and the Dictator is also here.  It’s an hour long piece that details the careers of both Chaplin and Hitler until the point they came together in The Great Dictator.  It’s narrated by Kenneth Branagh and filled with both modern recollections and important historical footage of both men.  This is one of the best documentaries EVER included as a supplement.

There is also an incredible 25 minutes of COLOR footage from behind the scenes of The Great Dictator shot by Charlie’s brother Syndey…I’d never seen Chaplin playing the Tramp in color before!  The film is in remarkably good shape, and is bound to be a treat for cinema buffs.  Rounding out is a Chaplin bit “Charlie the Barber” from 1919, which was supposed to have been part of his short film “Sunnyside” but later discarded.  Likewise, there is a deleted barber sequence from Sydney Chaplin's 1921 film King, Queen, Joker.  There are two new visual essays on the film, and finally, another superb Criterion booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Wood, Chaplin's 1940 New York Times defense of his movie, a reprint from critic Jean Narboni on the film's final speech, and Al Hirschfeld's original press book illustrations!

Summary:

The Great Dictator is often thought of as an ending to Chaplin’s prolific filmmaking career, but it should be celebrated as an unqualified triumph.  While the Tramp would never grace the screen again, he didn’t go out with a bowed head and a tear, but rather, with a loud, proud voice that proclaimed a great message of peace and hope.  But only after making us laugh like only Charlie Chaplin could.

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